Not long ago I was talking with our older daughter who was having a truly pitiful moment. “I got a masters degree and I can barely pay my bills!” She’s old enough to feel the pinch of an American economy hit hard by global and domestic politics, but she doesn't remember the times when her dad and I lived paycheck to paycheck. The fact I could always tuck a few bucks away for hard times surprised her. When she and her sister were young, I can remember walking into a grocery store, coupons and detailed list in hand. My husband was always amazed that I could predict the register tally, at least within a $5 range.
Those days are gone, mainly because our daughters are grown and I no longer have to provide 3 square meals a day for 4+ people. I say 4+ because the house was always full during those years, with friends and family who often ate with us. I can’t tell you what will work for you, but I can tell you what worked for us. Here are some tips from our experience coping during times of plenty that cost plenty as well.
• Pre-packaged foods are ridiculously expensive, so opt for menus that de-emphasize costly entrees. Whole-grain pasta with veggies and sauce with a salad on the side, dried lentils or beans combined with a cup of diced ham or browned ground beef and sliced carrots (toss in some brown rice if you like), a chef’s salad with bread and a cup of soup on the side were all part of my approach to stretching food budgets. You can come up with your own preferences, but it’s my belief that basic foods are actually healthier for you. I de-emphasized the meat and potatoes mentality, used the crock pot for stews and other such dishes and made great use of whatever was in season. You can do the same today. Each week I planned menus for a 7-day period. I based my grocery list on those menus and saved dollars because that eliminated the impulse purchase. In addition, if you are prone to order pizza for delivery, bear in mind you can buy a large pizza in the grocery for 1/3 of the cost. I often bought the plain cheese pizza, adding toppings like mushrooms, onions or pepperoni. Those toppings could be stretched to use in other foods or for snacks.
• Wash everything possible in cold water. The only things I wash in hot water are towels, underwear, wash cloths and dish cloths and bedding.
• I patronized one grocery store except on rare occasions when a true deal was available elsewhere. By becoming familiar with one grocer’s specials and merchandising, I definitely saved money. I clipped coupons from the weekly mailer as well as from magazines, but only if they were for items I used as opposed to items that looked enticing. Remember the power of marketing when you purchase. The money we saved on coupons (or anywhere else) went into savings and partially funded our family vacations each year.
• If you can do without an item or a service, do so and pat yourself on the back. I remember during some lean times after we purchased our first house, the pipe under our kitchen sink developed a tiny leak. I boiled a pan of water and poured it into the drain. I then took plastic wrap and wound it tightly around that pipe. Then I took my hair dryer and lightly blew the hot air onto the plastic. Sounds crazy, yes? We eventually had the pipe repaired—a year later—and the plumber told me it was an excellent patch.
• Be sure lights, TVs and other electronics are on only if you’re using them. Sounds basic, but you’d be amazed how many people leave a TV on even when they’re not watching it. Drives me nuts. Run your dishwasher only when it’s full. You can hang golf shirts, t-shirts and light garments to dry, thereby avoiding running the costly clothes dryer.
• We live in a warm climate and always have, so I accept the fact we have to use air conditioning. But during the brief cold spells when we lived in Carolina, I kept the heat on 66 degrees. Drove the kids nuts, but they learned to dress for the weather. My point is you can do something about the thermostat—it’s all up to you what you can tolerate. If you have an older heating and air system, consider replacing it. There’s never been a better time to get a more efficient system and rebates and financing are often available. Until recently, energy credits could also offset your tax liability. We put in a new system last year and the differences in cost and efficiency are amazing. The new system has a fan that runs briefly once the system shuts off. This really does extend the time period when your full system doesn’t run. [Disclosure: my husband is employed in the HVAC industry.]
• You’ve heard it before, but group and plan your errands. Car pool if at all possible. The US really isn’t constructed to enable walking to run errands, even if you live in a metro area. For instance, in our area, there’s a store a few blocks away. But you take your life in your hands if you try to cross the main road the store is located on. It’s my opinion aggressive enforcement of speed limits and even more importantly, lowering speed limits in residential areas would be an asset to those of us who’d like to walk outside our neighborhoods. Lowering speed limits and enforcing them will also save gas.
• Several days a week at least, pack your lunch if you work outside the home. It’s amazing what you spend in a restaurant, especially if you’re like me and feel obligated to leave a respectable tip for the server.
• My personal approach to a car: drive it as long as possible. We’ve always done this and believe me, it works as long as you do regular maintenance on your vehicle. I’ve never purchased a brand new vehicle, and even if I won the lottery, I never will.
• My best tip: deliberately avoid keeping up with the Joneses. Over the years, I’ve known many couples who are house poor. It’s not the visible part of the house that’s important, it’s the people in it and the shelter you create for each other. Both our daughters have asked why we don’t buy a fancier house. Fact is we don’t need one. Never have, never will.
• My other best tip: even if it’s pennies, save something. You'll be amazed at how this adds up over the years. Doing that enabled us to survive emergencies and you can count on those like you can count on your taxes. I know I’m obsessed with taxes. You should be too if you live in the US because my country isn't economically friendly to those of us who save and live within our means.
• Give something to others. This sounds crazy, but you have to realize there is always someone whose burden is greater than your own. Give according to your ability, but thrifty habits should include helping others. In my opinion.
Many of us didn’t grow up in splendor with the proverbial silver spoon shoved into our mouths. That’s a blessing, in my opinion. Live long enough and you’ll realize the greatest things in life don’t require an installment loan or a mortgage you will never pay off.
Do you have money-saving tips to share? Do tell by using the comments feature or by starting a thread in 'Community' on the right column.
[Text and photo by Kay B. Day. Photo of turn-of-the-century kitchen at Walter Jones Memorial Park in Jacksonville. The kitchen reminds me of my grandmother's house.]
Blog Stroll: For a variety of financial tips, visit the River Valley Coaching blog.